Reason as the Leading Motive

The Philosopher and the Plumber

Posted by Jerry on July 9, 2007

“Ludwig Wittgenstein was by universal agreement one of the greatest and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. There, however, the agreement stops. The question of how to read him is one that has excited a great deal of controversy ever since his first book [and the only one by him in his lifetime] was published in 1921. There is no consensus on how that book should be interpreted, or how his later work, Philosophical Investigations, ought to be read, or again on the extent to which the later work repudiates the earlier.”

So begins the introduction by Ray Monk on How to Read Wittgenstein. In essence, what Monk is admitting–perhaps unwittingly–is that there is universal agreement in the philosophical community that Wittgenstein was one of the greatest philosophers of the time; however, no one really knows why.

Indeed, one can draw an implied allusion from the above quote that this enigma–this elusive and unknown reason for why Wittgenstein’s work might be terribly important–is precisely the reason why he is considered the greatest philosopher of the time. Since we cannot understand or agree on what his position was, surely it must be something very important!

This attitude bears not too surprising parallels with the trends observed in post-modernist art, which, in general timeline, accompanies the height of Wittgenstinian scholarship, logical positivism, and linguistic analysis in philosophy.

In the post-modernist school of alleged art, the most bizarre, inexplicable, mystical, enigmatic, and even nonsensical creations carry the aura of high art and brands its creator as a ground-breaking artist. In other words, the more inaccessible a certain work is to human reason and human means of cognition, the more highly is the creator of the work praised (as an example, consider Ulyssses by James Joyce).

Throughout the book on Wittgenstein, Monk draws out numerous, explicit contradictions and paradoxes in Wittgenstein’s works–some littered within the same pages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And yet, instead of properly regarding these contradictions as the result of sloppy thinking, false premises, lack of clarity, and almost no knowledge of philosophy (after all, by his own admission, Wittgenstein was almost completely ignorant of the works of great philosophers of the past), Monk–along with other scholars on Wittgenstein–are insistent in delving into the paradoxes of his book as enigmas that were perhaps “consciously designed to elude comprehension.”

Wittgenstein admits that his work will not be easily understood, but even goes a step further and says that it cannot be understood because, in attempting to speak about philosophy, his work is nonsense. Nothing can be said or expressed in propositions about philosophy, aesthetics, religion, ethics, etc. Therefore, he says, “the book is an attempt to express what cannot be expressed, and, therefore, nonsense.”

According to Wittgenstein, the “strict” and “right method” of doing philosophy is to say nothing other than what can be said, “i.e., the propositions of natural science, something that has nothing to do with philosophy.” In other words, “all philosophical propositions are nonsense,” and “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”

Having said that, he then proceeds to write a book about philosophy and ethics, allegedly claiming to convey “unassailable truths” contained in the nonsense of his expressed propositions.

Wittgenstein says that if the reader does not already have an implicit understanding of the same views that he is attempting to convey in the book, then there can be no hope for new understanding:

“This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it — or similar thoughts.”

Further, in attempting to clarify the manner in which his book should be read and interpreted, he provides an analogy:

“[Anyone] who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”

However, I would argue that his analogy is off-target in a very crucial respect. According to him, one would simply have to “throw away the ladder” once he has climbed up beyond them; in truth, however, even that presupposes a meaningful identification of the purpose of a ladder. To be consistent in the analogy, one must properly claim that even the concept of a ladder is nonsense, unspeakable, and unidentifiable! Then, “throwing away the ladder” is out of the question; indeed, it is nonsense! 🙂

By banishing the whole of philosophy (along with art, aesthetics, religion, and other fields) to the realm of nonsense and the unspeakable, Wittgenstein had effectively invalidated the function of philosophical propositions by alleging that nothing meaningful can ever be expressed by them.

Now, all of this reminds me of Ayn Rand’s brilliant observation of what philosophers like Wittgenstein and the others he spawned tried to accomplish. Through the character of Hugh Akston–the philosopher in Atlas Shrugged–Rand employs her characteristic style of reduction to clarity when she says:

People would not employ a plumber who’d attempt to prove his professional excellence by asserting that there’s no such thing as plumbing—but, apparently, the same standards of caution are not considered necessary in regard to philosophy.


3 Responses to “The Philosopher and the Plumber”

  1. Trey said

    You attack the Tractatus, which Wittgenstein attacks later. What he was doing was really an extension of Kant’s antinomies (showing that certain “propositions” were in fact not well-formed (i.e. senseless)). He is in fact, showing how philosophical “problems” arise from a confusion in the use of language. Wittgenstein also says there may not be hope for the reader (notice the perhaps in your quotation). Wittgenstein was really discussing the “propositions” of philosophy, showing that they are incoherent. This, however is coherent discourse. One can discuss the incoherence of a given proposition but cannot discuss anything meaningful through the proposition (i.e. the proposition has no sense (i.e. cannot be used in the given language)).

    Please, don’t use Ayn Rand to attack serious thinkers.

  2. Ergo said


    Perhaps you’re not familiar, but it is fairly well-known that when Rand used the analogy of the plumber in AS (through the words of Akston Hughes), she was targeting the linguistic analysts and the logical positivists. While I’ll concede that Wittgenstein himself eschewed the label of logical positivism, the members of that philosophy eagerly regarded him (and his early work in particular) as the exemplar of the philosophy.

    Regarding your general point on propositions, I assume (perhaps wrongly) that you haven’t read later Wittgenstein, because if you did, you would know that while earlier he rejected the view that anything can ever be *said* (not just coherently) about philosophy or religion or aesthetics or morality, his later philosophy claims that such things can only be spoken of within the specific framework pertaining to that topic, i.e., nothing can be communicated across language games because each linguistic framework has its own rules of the game by which we must play in order to dispel *linguistic* puzzlement.

  3. Trey said

    But there can be trans-game communication.

    Wittgenstein accounts for this:

    the totality of natural language as family resemblances of language-games.

    However, the use of a word here is different than its use within its language game.

    I can speak about what I associate with a particular word in one game and with another in another game.

    However, I cannot use the word as it is used in its particular game in another game

    (I cannot use the word “marshmallow” in mathematics without translating it into some symbol in that language).

    Just as when I talk about Hamlet’s existence (in the play) it is true, but when I speak about Hamlet’s existence in “empirical reality” it is false.

    Yet I can talk about these together (as I just did), realizing that each has a different use (is in fact a different “move” in its game).

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